The Seer Returns: Michael Gira on Swans' ever-evolving live show
Michael Gira explains why Swans will always be a work in progress
Following the ambitions of post-rock bands like Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor towards an oceanic, expansive and orchestrated ecstasy, Swans’ The Seer is a culmination of rock’s yearnings to capture the depth and intensity of a romantic symphony. Garnering international critical acclaim, and establishing leader Michael Gira as one of music’s most visionary performers, The Seer’s success has been consolidated by a series of live shows that see the newly energised band push their fascination with immensity further.
The elegant irony that an earlier incarnation of Swans provided inspiration for the likes of Mogwai is emphasised by Gira’s refusal to wallow in nostalgia: “I see no point in trying to rehash old things,” he says. “It keeps you alive, going into uncomfortable areas.” And although Swans have been releasing albums since the early 1980s, Gira spent much of the post-rock era running the Young God record label and producing sinister Americana under the Angels of Light name.
Reactivating Swans in 2010 was clearly no attempt to cash in on past glories: although he has reassembled many familiar faces, “It's not really getting the band back together,” he explains. “Because the band changed over time but I just chose who I think would be useful – and even more importantly, for who they are as people.” Besides, the crushing noise of releases like Cop and Raping a Slave never had the mainstream appeal of other supposedly alternative acts currently churning out their greatest past moments.
The continuity of Swans, however, is clear. Gira continues to be concerned with creating immersive sounds and, even down a transatlantic phone line, his quiet confidence and emotional honesty is evident. He is disarmingly polite and uninterested in defining Swans within a wider musical context, even laughing good humouredly at wild attempts to place their use of repetition in a classical context or his lyrics in a spiritual tradition.
“I am not a publicist or a music biz person,” he says. “So I just try to be a good artist.” And as for comparisons with the American minimalists, he replies “I don't know. I don't think that way when making music. I guess I have a predilection for making music that has a single chord structure. There are all kinds of worlds within a single chord. It's not like La Monte Young, trying to find an answer...”
Perhaps the strongest thread through Gira’s Swans work is the importance of the live experience. If early gigs were notoriously brutal,and combative – one bootleg from a joint tour with Sonic Youth has Thurston Moore threatening a disgruntled audience with an all-star Swans/Sonic Youth jam to considerable heckling – Gira named one album, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity after an on-stage experience and the new music is being increasingly shaped by touring.
And for Gira himself, "when [a Swans concert] reaches its peak it's the closest thing I have to spirituality. I have a short time on earth and I want to experience the most intense condensation of reality that I can.” If The Seer fulfilled the promise of return album, 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, the live performances are taking the sound further into the immensity Gira is craving. “Our sets now... last night was two and a half hours. It's quite ecstatic,” he reflects. “We have half new material, unrecorded, that is slowly morphing through each show, taking on different forms every night and slowly evolving.”
Affirming that the band’s sound is increasingly developing through the process of playing live, he is quietly enthusiastic about the reception it receives. Asked about audiences – now larger and more positive, he replies “That is gratifying. I think that if they have a predilection for what we are doing, they can find it. They want what the music has to offer, and that's the best thing. They are very open. Well, they have to be for what we do.”
And unlike many musicians of similar vintage, Gira is looking towards future development. While he might be reluctant to identify any particular influences, either musical or cultural – “I actually don't picture myself in anything,” he says. “There are a bunch of things that influence me: daily life, the people I am working with, making shapes out of what is available” – he describes the evolution of the music in concise, direct terms.
“We are really trying to explore some grooves now. Particularly with this new material, it’s a new avenue to pursue. It's enjoyable,” he adds. “I realise it is not a conscious thing – we are not trying to sound like James Brown – although I can't think of anything better than to sound like James Brown.”
Gira is more reticent about explaining his lyrics. The Seer, especially on the title track, hints at a mystical appreciation of the world, but Gira is quick to deny any religious or spiritual agenda. When questioned about a possible theological interpretation of his songwriting – given that he once released a double album called Children of God, it’s not that unreasonable – he pauses.
“Well... yeah.. I suppose so.” His good natured chuckle returns. “I guess it is just what I gravitate towards. It's not a working illustration of studies, or something. It just really engenders itself. When I work on a song, one thing leads to another and it ends up in the form it is. I rarely sit down when writing a lyric and think about what it is about.”
There are songs on The Seer that do call for more attention to the words. “Some songs are lyrical and that's one thing,” he admits. “But when the lyrics are involved in these cosmic escalating crescendos, I think to have a literal descriptive lyric in there makes the music sound smaller. It's really about finding words that charge the sound, and I have to embody them as a singer. So when I write words for the bigger pieces, they have to be in the present tense. Writing poetically would tend to be an intrusion.”
If the spirituality of Swans is formed not by intention, but the shamanic intensity of performance – again Gira modestly demurs here, observing “I think I am more like a psychedelic clown” – he acknowledges that they echo a very American religious music. “The words are part of it and they inform it. It's a delicate issue. It's like in certain American gospel music, where a simple phrase is repeated and keeps building. I tend to gravitate towards that.”
While Gira’s modesty may be frustrating for those desperately trying to build an aesthetic justification for Swans’ return, the lack of a grand design is probably what allows the band to chase and capture their majestic fire. When Gira describes himself as “the impresario,” he stresses that the current line up contributes to the visceral impact. “It's just a physical and psychic and emotional commitment to make the sound live that we do, so the people that are doing it are very important. It's very challenging.”
Cliches about years in the wilderness, or a return to form, can never quite fit Gira’s idiosyncratic career: he has been making intriguing music consistently, and embodies a restlessness that has seen him create melancholic yet bucolic folk against ear-bursting slabs of noise, all informed by both an idiosyncratic humour and seriousness. Yet there is no doubt that Swans are, finally, reaching large audiences who are receptive to Gira’s vision.
“We just had a tremendous experience in Poland, at a festival,” he explains. “One of the best shows I have ever been involved in. How many people – maybe twenty, maybe thirty thousand, I don't know. We headlined one night and Iggy Pop headlined the other. A tremendous amount of people and they seemed to really get it. I think the sound was right – it worked completely, and that was really gratifying.”